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Welcome to South Park

Across the pond, the second half of the 13th season of the iconoclastic cartoon South Park is well under way. And, thanks to a wide range of (yes, probably illegal) streaming websites, UK audiences have also been able to enjoy new episodes covering subjects from this summer's glut of celebrity deaths to America's obsession with bizarrely theatrical wrestling matches.

There was a time when South Park was written off as the foul-mouthed preserve of puerile adolescents. One need only glance at previews for this week's episode (scheduled to air on Friday), which, it seems, will tackle US hysteria about Japanese whale and dolphin hunting, to realise that these days it represents something quite different. Indeed, South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have in recent years been responsible for some of the sharpest social, political and cultural commentary ever to make it on to American television screens -- a more brazen, far more offensive, altogether funnier Daily Show, if you will.

In an article in the New Statesman a couple years ago, the critic and academic Eric Griffiths argued that Parker and Stone's collaborative friendship is one "that future historians will surely regard as defining an era". So, it's about time that uninitiated readers were introduced to three particularly outstanding episodes of the show. Feel free to praise any personal favourites in the comment box below.

Smug Alert (Season 10, Episode 2): The father of one of the main characters in the show buys a hybrid car because he wants to be "part of the solution and not part of the problem". Realising that his new car positions him somewhat "ahead of the curve", he moves his entire family to San Francisco, a city buried under a cloud of "smug", because of all the "self-satisfied garbage" its populace emits into the air.

About Last Night (Season 12, Episode 12): Broadcast less than a day after Barack Obama was declared winner of the 2008 presidential election, and featuring crowds of inebriated Democrats ("Everything's gonna change!") and suicidal Republicans, this episode hinges on the idea that both parties' campaigns were, in fact, hijacked by an Ocean's Eleven-style gang of jewel thieves featuring, among others, smooth-talking Barack, computer-hacking Michelle, and Sarah Palin, the beautiful brains behind the operation. Barack ultimately decides, in true Hollywood fashion, to "give this president thing a try".

The Ring (Season 13, Episode 1): Another of the show's protagonists, Kenny, takes his new girlfriend, Tammy, to a Jonas Brothers performance, where the pair are encouraged to start wearing purity rings. These rings are soon exposed as a highly profitable marketing tactic dreamt up by a potty-mouthed and megalomaniacal Mickey Mouse -- a way of selling sex to young girls without undermining Disney's reputation as a bastion of Christian, family-friendly morality.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era